It’s hard to imagine a song being more culturally relevant or timely. But of course, the words and the timing of “Female” were not coincidental. Keith Urban sat down in a recent interview with Billboard and shared the story behind the song and why it’s so important to him.
The Pen is Mightier
Urban didn’t actually write “Female,” but the history of the song can’t be divorced from him recording it.
The song was penned by three veteran country writers, Ross Copperman, Nicolle Galyon, and Shane McAnally. (McNally co-wrote the smash hit “Body Like a Back Road.”) Though normally writing songs about lust, beer, and country roads, a couple of events collided that affected the trio.
First, there was the Route 91 tragic shooting. As the nation recovered from that, the Harvey Weinstein scandal began to garner national attention. Though the artists have said that Weinstein wasn’t the inspiration, the events surrounding him sparked a dialogue about women’s issues. Between the two, the writers decided to use their pen to make a statement.
“After Vegas, to be honest, I haven’t wanted to do anything other than write songs that make an impact,” Copperman says. “So that’s all I’ve been doing. We got to talking that day, and then Shane McAnally was like, ‘I’ve had this title in my phone a long time — I’ve never known how to do it — called ‘Female.’ Me and [Galyon] were like, ‘Uh, yes, we’re doing that.’ We thought the best way to write it was to just list things in the chorus.”
Urban was impacted by the song the minute he encountered it. Some of the words immediately spoke to him. For example, that list of words from the chorus. They built a complex idea of a woman. But closer to home, the first words are “Baby / girl / woman / child / female.” ‘Baby girl’ happens to be Urban’s pet name for his wife, Nicole Kidman.
He told Rolling Stone that the lines about consent were also some of his favorites. “When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it/Just cause she was wearing a skirt,” he sings, “Oh is that how that works?”
Those words speak to the message of the song. That message impacted Urban.
“As a husband and a father of two young girls, it affects me in a lot of ways,” Urban said of the song. “And as a son — my mother is alive. It just speaks to all of the females in my life, particularly. For a guy who grew up with no sisters in a house of boys, it’s incredible how now I’m surrounded by girls. But not only in my house; I employ a huge amount of women in my team. The song just hit me for so many reasons.”
Besides the message of empowerment, Urban also commented about how much he appreciated the brilliance of the writing itself.
“The rhythm is very much a mantra, like a chant; it’s like, are ‘mother’ and ‘nature’ two separate words? Or is it ‘Mother Nature?’” Urban remarked. “When you’re dealing with that kind of subject, you’re already fraught with, how do you frame something that speaks to as many people as possible? I think the writers did an extraordinary job on reaching down to places of the soul and heart and humanity, even deeper [to] that sense of oneness and connectedness.”
Part of the “extraordinary job” of the writers is the simplicity of “Female.” It’s understated. Not only does Urban recognize that, but he embraces it.
“Minimalism was my main desire for the performance of the song,” he says. “I just wanted the song to be the feature.”
Urban was clear in his Billboard interview that he had no predictions as to what impact the song would have. In fact, he actually said that was out of his purview.
“It’s none of my business what a song does after [it’s recorded],” he says. “For me, it’s not the result, it’s the process. As a musician, the way I create, it’s just about capturing something that means something to me and then letting it go and finding its way in the world to do whatever it’s meant to do.”
“What it’s meant to do” seems uncertain. What “Female” has done is sparked controversy. And it isn’t just the message. It’s the messenger.
Some outlets have criticized some of the female nomenclatures in the song. But the bigger issue seems to be that a man sings it. The issue of “mansplaining” has become an overtone of the song in the media frenzy that followed its release.
But Urban has remained true to his word. He hasn’t come out publicly in response to the criticism. It appears he is letting it “do what it’s meant to do.”
The writers, on the other hand, have vehemently defended the song. Regardless, they also acknowledge that controversy fuels dialogue and debate. So in that sense, the song has just the impact the authors wanted.
The Rest of the Story
There are a few other interesting details in the story of “Female.”
For one, you might have noticed the background vocals. If that voice is at all familiar, it’s because you’ve heard it before– but in movies. Nicole Kidman actually sings back-up on the track.
Also, though the writers didn’t create “Female” for Urban, he heard it the day after they finished it. “I got to hear it fresh out of the oven, and it was instant love for me,” he told Rolling Stone. This was in early October. Less than a month later, Urban had recorded the song and debuted it at the Nov. 8 CMA Awards.
Whether “Female” makes the statement its authors or singer wanted is somewhat immaterial. It still puts county music in step with the national dialogue and comes at a relevant time. Urban is known for pushing the boundaries of country, so he was a good choice. Besides that, the song clearly had a personal impact on him– and isn’t that what we all love about country music? How it makes us feel when it speaks our truth?